By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: Although Prudy and John with their father and mother have a new home in Ogden, and Father has started a tailoring business, the children are not content. They know that Mother wants to go on to California. John finds a position in the Browning Gun Shop, but Father insists that he go to school rather than earn money. This is especially disappointing when the children learn that their mother wishes to go to California because her brother Angus is there. Although Uncle Angus is angry with his sister and has promised not to speak to her again, Prudy and John feel that if they could find him he would return to Ogden and Mother would be happy. They are uneasy, too, about what an American school will bring them.
The first day of school Prudy and John went early. There was a fine new four-room school house up on Washington Avenue, the Mound Fort School; but the neighbors said that Washington Avenue would be too far to walk when the winter blizzards came. Besides, Father and Mother thought that the children might feel more at home in Broom’s Bench school on West Twelfth Street not far from their own house.
Broom’s Bench School had just one square room with four windows and two doors. A blackboard ran the length of the back wall, a stove with a sheet of iron around it stood in the center, and there were long rows of double seats, each with a double desk. At the front of the room on a raised platform was the teacher’s desk.
“So you haven’t been in school for two years?” Miss Baker, the teacher asked. “What is the reason for your absence?”
John’s eyes asked Prudy to do the talking. “John and I went to school in England, then when my aunt and uncle decided to come to America we didn’t start the new term because we knew that we couldn’t finish it,” Prudy explained. “Then last year my brother and I were in Tuba, Arizona. There was a school there, but we were not in town all the time, so–”
Miss Baker reached for the shiny bell with the brown wooden handle. “It’s time for the bell. I won’t have time now to find out just what reader you are capable of reading. Today you may sit here, John; and Prudence, you may sit here.” She directed the children to seats at the end of the two last rows. “Each of you will have a seat mate who attended school here last year to help you get acquainted. And children – if I were you, for the first day or two I’d watch and listen and see what’s going on.”
Prudy nodded and her brown curls danced. “That’s what we planned to do, Miss Baker. Thank you.”
When Miss Baker had run the bell and reached inside for a triangle that hung on the nail by the door, Prudy turned to John. “Isn’t she wonderful? Did you hear the elegant rustle her petticoats made when she sailed down the aisle? Whew! She must have ten yards of skirt.”
Miss Baker struck the triangle smartly and the children keeping step, filed into the school room. She hung the triangle on its nail, clapped her hands, and the students dropped into their seats.
The girl beside Prudy was round-faced and smiling. Her hair was drawn back and braided so tightly that her eyebrows seemed to be pulled up in a permanent question. “I’m Minnie Carver. Who are you?”
Prudy saw Miss Baker’s eyes on her so she didn’t answer. “Stuck up?” Minnie asked in the same friendly whisper. “Well, you won’t be long.” Prudy watched John. The boy beside him was as blond as John and seemed twice as large. He had small blue eyes which studied John as if he were some new variety of animal or bird.
School began with a song. The words and music were strange to John and Prudy, but Prudy made up her mind that she would listen to every word. It was about America, and she and John were going to be real Americans now. She hummed along quietly with the rest, trying to set the tune in her mind.
Following the song there was a reading lesson. But when Miss Baker called the classes to the long recitation benches at the front of the room, she signed to Prudy and John to remain in their seats.
When the reading lesson was over, Miss Baker walked to the blackboard, her many petticoats setting up a lovely rustling. “We’ll recite our geography now.” Geography! Prudy thought. Now they were going to learn about lovely far-away places. But Miss Baker continued, “Today we are going to study the Indian tribes of America.”
Prudy was disappointed, but she saw John sit up straighter. Indians. That was something they knew a great deal about.
Miss Baker lifted her chalk. As if by a signal the children commenced to name the Indian tribes of America in a sing-song manner like speaking the ABC’s or the two-times-two tables. “Now you have named the Indians of the East and the Indians of the Mississippi River Valley. Today we shall talk about the Indians of the West.” Miss Baker’s voice fell a little. “Do any of you know about the Indians of the West?”
Not a hand was raised. Prudy wiggled in her seat. Finally she couldn’t stand being quiet any longer. “Please, Miss Baker, excuse me for talking instead of listening like you said, but I know a lot about the Indians. Last year my brother and I ran an Indian trading post and one day –” In her excitement Prudy left her seat and walked to the front of the room. She stood half facing Miss Baker and half facing the class. She began to tell the story of being left alone in the trading post when the Indians decided to take to the warpath. She had just got to the part of the story where even Old Toby, the trusty Indian, had left them and they were alone when Miss Baker broke into the story.
“Prudence,” she said, and her voice was very patient. “When we tell make-believe stories in this school we say at the first, “This is a make-believe story, it is not true.’”
Prudy turned around amazed. “But it is true. My brother and I–”
Miss Baker’s voice wasn’t so patient now. “That will do, Prudence. Go to your seat.”
“Oh, let her go on,” one of the older students begged. “Yes, let her,” the students chorused. Then the boy who was sitting with John drawled, “We like to hear the funny way she talks.”
Prudy stumbled to her seat. She couldn’t see where she was going her eyes were so full of angry tears. She wouldn’t let herself look at John. His eyes might tell her that she should have had better sense than to recite when the teacher told her to watch and listen. She blinked back er tears. Now she thought about it she wasn’t embarrassed. She was angry. So they liked listening to her just so they could laugh, did they! She spoke English just as well as the next one. What if she did leave off her h’s and slur her r’s! At least she didn’t say “ant” when she meant “aunt.” Then her anger gave way to amusement and she saw herself as these American boys and girls saw her. She wasn’t going to let this false start spoil her school days!
Almost at once it was recess time and Miss Baker clapped her hands for the children to rise and file out.
Prudy and John had wondered what games the children would play. Today there weren’t any games started. A crowd was waiting to surround them the minute they reached the school grounds. “Tell us more about those Indians,” Minnie demanded.
Prudy looked at Minnie’s round face, her up-drawn eyebrows. It would be nice to have a little girl for a friend. “All right,” she agreed. “What do you want to know?”
“Don’t do it, Prudy,” John advised. “They just want to guy you.”
“Let her talk!” John’s new seat mate ordered, and his words were a command rather than a request.
John turned to him and measured him up and down with his eyes. “She’s my sister,” he said, “and I’m not going to have her laughed at by your or anybody else.” The boy glowered back. “Is that clear?” John demanded. “You understand me?”
“Who’s going to keep me from laughing if I want to laugh?” the boy challenged.
John answered without a pause, “I am. You’re twice as big as I am, but you’re not going to laugh at my sister!”
“Keep your shirt on,” the big boy advised. He putout one big rough hand and pushed John’s chest so hard and so suddenly that John fell back into the crowd behind him. John was back on his feet in a second. His face was a dull, angry red.
“Aw, leave him alone, Jess,” someone in the crowd advised.
“Fight you,” Jess challenged gruffly.
“Don’t you do it,” Prudy screamed. “He’s ten times bigger than you!”
Jess came close and leaned toward John. “Course if you’re scared–”
“I’m not scared. I’m not!” There was almost a sob in John’s throat he was so angry. Suddenly he thrust upward with his fist and smashed into Jess’s nose. Red blood spouted out. John fell back, suddenly sorry for his anger, but the hurt and the feel of the warm blood on his face had made Jess enraged. With a roar he charged John, pummeling him with two flying fists. Blood dripped from a cut at the corner of John’s eye and from a place in his lip that had been pushed into his teeth.
“Go it, Jess!” part of the crowd of boys and girls shouted. “Give him what for!”
“Get him, John! Get him!” others shouted.
The ring grew tighter and tighter around the struggling boys. Nobody heard the recess bell when Miss Baker rang it. It wasn’t until she pushed her way through the crowd that the children thought of school.
“Boys,” she shouted in her sharp voice. “Boys.” She put a hand on each of their shoulders. Her strong long fingers seemed to grasp through to the bone. “Go to the creek and wash yourselves.” To the others she said shortly, “Recess is over.”
When John and Jess returned to the school room the children were doing sums on their slates, but Miss Baker said, “Attention, children. You may watch while these young men shake hands and promise not to fight again.”
Jess put out his hand. His voice was friendly but his small blue eyes still gleamed angrily beneath lowered lids. “Sure, I’ll shake hands.”
“And promise not to fight again?” Miss Baker prompted.
“Sure,” Jess agreed.
John stood with his hands behind him. Both eyes had begun to turn black and a great bump was rising just above his left eye. “I can’t promise, Ma’am,” he said respectfully to Miss Baker.
“And why can’t you?”
“Because I might have to fight again,” John explained. “I’m not going to have anybody laughing at my sister. And English – well, English folks are just as good as Americans.”
Miss Baker’s voice was less sharp. “Nobody’s going to laugh at Prudence, I’m sure. And there isn’t a boy or girl in this school that doesn’t know that we get most everything we have – our literature, our customs, our laws – from our English forefathers.”
She waited for John to speak. Finally he did. “I’d rather not promise, Miss Baker. But if you wish me to–” He spoke slowly, “I promise not to fight again.”
“That’s fine, boys,” Miss Baker said. “Now take your seats. John, you may sit with Emil Jenson in the third row. Emil hasn’t a seat partner.”
It was not until afternoon recess that Jess bothered John again. “Want to fight?” he asked.
“No,” John answered coldly. “I promised I wouldn’t and I won’t.”
Jess doubled his fist and held it under John’s nose. “Want a taste of that?” he taunted.
Without a word John turned on his heel and walked toward the schoolhouse. Prudy followed uneasily. Miss Baker was arranging some autumn leaves in a jar on her desk. Prudy slipped quietly into her seat and commenced reading her book. Her ears were strained to hear what John might say to Miss Baker. He went straight to her desk. “Miss Baker, I want you to release me from the promise I made this morning.”
Miss Baker tilted her head incredulously. “You mean you want to go on with the fight you and Jess were having? That would be a very foolish thing to do, John. He is much larger than you are, and an excellent fighter, if one can believe what the students say.”
John answered, his voice still quiet, “I know, Ma’am. I expect he’ll damage me all right, but –”
“But you still want to fight?”
“I have to fight, Ma’am– under the circumstances.”
“If you feel that way I’ll release you from your promise,” Miss Baker agreed. “Only I–”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” John’s voice was still quiet. As he turned to come down the aisle, Prudy looked over the top of her book. John’s lips were smiling but his eyes looked worried.
“Don’t you do it, John,” she said in a loud whisper. “Don’t you fight that big old Jess. Why, he might kill you!”
Now John’s eyes as well as his lips smiled. “It takes a great deal to kill a person, Prudy.”
“You think that just because you’re in the right you’ll win, don’t you?”
“I don’t expect to win.” John sat down in his seat, his back toward Prudy. He took out his book without another word.
When the class marched in, Prudy kept her eye on Jess as the boys and girls filed up and down the aisles. When he came even with John he folded his big hand into a fist, showed the closed knuckles to John, and marched on without moving an eyelid. There’d be a fight sooner or later, Prudy knew that. She also knew that John would get the worst of it.
The rest of the afternoon Prudy was too excited to keep her mind on her studies. Miss Baker allowed her and John to go to the blackboard with the rest of the larger boys and girls to do sums. John had a difficult problem but he did it perfectly and finished first in the class. Miss Baker complimented him, but the compliment didn’t bring a smile to John’s quiet face. “Whatever is he thinking about?” Prudy wondered. Then she knew the answer. It was the fight, of course, and Jess’s hard, bony knuckles.
Prudy dreaded the afternoon session to end, but when Miss Baker rose and took the triangle from the nail by the door, John closed his books with a sigh of relief. It was easy to see that he wanted to get the fight over with.
When the class marched out the children didn’t scatter over the school ground. Instead they stood together in a knot, tense and expectant. John tried to act as if there were nothing brooding in the air; but as soon as Miss Baker had gone back into the school house Jess came close to John. Wordlessly he showed his knuckles again, turning his hand around so that John could get a complete view.
John smiled. Prudy could see that Jess was going to have a hard time picking a fight in such a way that the other boys would support him. “You’re scared to fight,” Jess taunted. “You’re yellow! You’re scared to fight!”
“No, I’m not,” John answered seriously. Then before Jess could put up his guard, John rushed in with a smashing left to Jess’s chin. It was the last blow he landed. The fight begun, Jess took it up with energy. But John was so quick and wiry that most of Jess’s blows were glancing. Finally Jess wrapped his arms around John, put one leg around to John’s to unbalance him, and the two went down in a heap.
“Roll over. Roll over, John. Get him under!” the boys shouted. Prudy noticed that even Jess’s circle of friends were rooting for John.
John made the effort. Twice he rolled Jess onto his back, but each time, with a fierce lunge, Jess was over and on top again. At last Jess kneeled on John and pinned his shoulders to the hard dirt of the school playground. “Say uncle,” he ordered.
“Uncle,” John repeated. Jess got up and John staggered to his feet. “I don’t know how they do it in America, but in England –” He held out his hand. “You’re a better man than I am, Jess. You beat me fair.”
Jess took the offered hand. His face blushed an ugly purple red. “Aw,” he responded, not knowing what else to say.
The boys accompanied John to the creek to wash away the blood and dirt. Prudy would have gone too, but John gave her a glance that told her more strongly than words that he didn’t want her tagging along. Minnie put her arm through Prudy’s. “There’s a place where there’s a board pulled loose from the fence,” she said. “We’ve put it on the two-by-four that runs along the bottom of the fence. It makes a swell teeter.”
Prudy allowed herself to be led off to the teeter, all the time wishing she might have tagged along with John. “I sure like your brother,” Minnie confided. “I guess he’s the bravest boy in this school, to stand up to that old Jess that way. And he’s so good looking.” Prudy said nothing and Minnie ended lamely, “I sure like him.”
Prudy answered, “I do, too.” She teetered with Minnie for a few minutes, expecting John to come back to walk home with her, but he raced up the street playing “Keep Away” with the boys. She watched the fast-moving yarn ball with eyes which plainly mirrored her injured feelings.
“I’ll walk a ways with you,” Minnie offered. Prudy put her arm through Minnie’s, grateful for a friend since John had deserted her.
Just before supper John stood before the kitchen mirror, studying his blackened eye and cut lip. Prudence came up behind him and smiled at him in the mirror. “I know you’re handsome, but that isn’t any reason why you can’t walk home from school with your homely sister.”
John didn’t smile in return, as Prudy had expected him to do. Instead he turned and wiped his hands on the white roller towel. “What do you mean?”
“Walking off when you knew I was waiting – and everything.”
John turned to her. “Didn’t I do right in finishing the fight?”
“Of course you did. I was so proud of you I could have popped, but –”
“Well, then, did you want me to lose everything I’d gained by letting myself get mashed up this way?”
Prudy avoided his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. The boys like me now, and – well, you know. From now on I’ll be in on things. Besides, you walked home with Minnie.”
“Oh, her!” Prudy dismissed Minnie with a shrug of her shoulders. “She’s sweet on you, that’s why she’s nice to me.”
John laughed heartily, then he sobered.”Look here, Prudy, you’ve got to earn your own way. Everybody does. My way was to fight Jess. I don’t know what your way will be, but I guess you can figure that out.”
John went outside to empty the wash basin in the garden. When he came back Prudy was wiping her eyes on the kitchen towel. He stood for a minute pulling at his ear, then he said awkwardly, “You’ll like the new school. You’ll see.”
Prudy turned on him suddenly. “I don’t want to like school. You’re so pleased with yourself now that the other boys like you that you’ll forget all about our plans to make money so we can go to California and find Uncle Angus.”
“I can’t forget that Mother wants to find Uncle Angus more than anything in the world,” John said slowly. “But since Father says we’ve got to go to school –”
“I don’t care if the other scholars don’t like me,” Prudy said recklessly. “I don’t want to like school!”